Our next finalist for the Head of School role will be on campus in just one week, on Wednesday, September 25. Get ready to meet Ben Fussiner! Ben’s biography, video introduction, and statement of educational and leadership philosophy are below.
As a reminder, after Ben’s visit, our remaining candidates will visit us on Wednesday, October 2, and Thursday, October 10. We will be emailing you an introduction to each finalist one week before their visit.
We are thrilled for you to meet Ben, who will be on campus for a full day, starting with greeting families at morning drop-off.
In joyful anticipation,
Tom Pinneo and Hilary Sims
Co-Clerks of the PFS Head of School Search Committee
Ben Fussiner was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1968, to a preschool director mother and a college professor father. Despite a complicated relationship with his own “traditional” schooling, he got into the family business. When he eventually discovered progressive education, he was all in. Ben is now deeply committed to schools that honor children as the complex and unique humans that they are.
After majoring in liberal studies at Southern Connecticut State University, Ben earned a master’s of education at Harvard University. In his early career as a teacher, Ben taught third grade (they loved him unconditionally) and fifth grade (they questioned everything he said). Since then, he has held many administrative positions at top independent K–12 schools in New York and California, including the role of Head of Middle School at Friends Seminary in Manhattan.
Ben’s two appreciable skills, outside of being an educator, are choosing the correct size container for leftovers and identifying which dog in children’s literature people’s dogs resemble. And, true story, he was once a body double for John Goodman on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Ben’s wife, Sondra Lender, is a professional organizer. Yes, he will ask her if she’s available to help you. They have two sons, Ziggy, who is seven, and Marsden, who will be five this month.
For a video introduction to Ben Fussiner, click here.
Statement of Educational Philosophy and Leadership Practice
There is a ubiquitous quote, oft cited in educational essays, that I have seen attributed to different people, most frequently W.B. Yeats. I tend to believe the original source was Plutarch. The quote (as you have probably surmised) is, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Phil Schwartz, who has been teaching Latin at Friends Seminary for more than 40 years, assures me that it was, in fact, Plutarch, and I find it difficult to doubt Phil Schwartz.
I remember first hearing this quote, as a fledgling educator, and feeling inspired. This quote encapsulated what bothered me about so many of my classes as a student: it seemed to me that the teacher was discharging information that I was then required to, as accurately as possible, spew right back.
I decided that my greatest asset as an educator was my curiosity and my passion for learning. The very first day I ever taught, a student raised her hand after I got off of my proverbial soapbox and asked, “Are you acting?”
I suppose I was acting, to a degree, I was acting like a teacher, and I learned quickly to tone it down. But to this day, it is my enthusiasm, more than any other trait, I believe, that connects me to my students.
Schools, at least schools for four to twelve year-olds, should be spaces where students learn how to learn and learn to love learning. Content mastery and skill acquisition are important, but neither will last long in a student’s mind without engagement and connection. This engagement, and connection, is most effective when a student has every reason to believe that the school cares deeply about him or her.
A parent came to see me once, very early in the school year, because he was worried that his fifth grade son (we’ll call him Max) did not score well on reading comprehension tests. During our conversation, it came out that Max had cried the night before while reading his assigned chapter in his book, because the character was going through something so difficult. Part of the problem with education in this country, is that we are a nation that needs to categorize and compare in simple terms, and to do this with such large numbers of students across the country, we have come to rely on standardized tests. A standardized test will never be able to register Max’s ability to feel empathy. I would argue that Max had fantastic reading comprehension. He may not have been able to identify the name of the protagonist’s mother, but he understood what the character was going through.
Elementary schools need to prepare students for a lifelong educational journey, but I believe that the best preparation is not to try to do absolutely everything, but to hone in on doing many things very well. I remember learning about the holocaust from Middle School History. I know that I will never stand by in the face of prejudice and oppression, but I don't remember the specific dates of Kristallnacht.
It is also the job of a school, I believe, to ensure that students are receiving grounding in the responsibilities of being a person in this world. I want my students to have a deep understanding of perspective, integrity, and cooperation. I believe that a school that only concentrates on the academic life of a child is not preparing its students to be a truly positive force in the community. Progressive schools, more than most, tend to understand this philosophy, and it is why I am drawn to progressive education.
One of the great frustrations of being a parent is all of the delicate balancing acts that must be played. Am I too permissive? Am I too strict? Should I try to make life easier, even though I know real learning comes from facing difficult situations? Schools have to deal with this balancing act every day. When we add something, what do we subtract? When we move toward the inevitability of modern technology, what do we lose in terms of simplicity and human connection?
In my day-to-day life as a school administrator, I try to keep all of this in mind: Be passionate about what you believe in, inspire others with your enthusiasm, concentrate on being a positive social force, be cognizant of both sides of an issue, approach problem-solving with a truly collaborative spirit. And at the end of the day, make decisions based on what is in the best interests of the student body as a whole.
I think it is important to note that no matter what my personal educational philosophy is, the greatest trait I can maintain as an administrator is to recognize that every member of a school community does not have to agree to a philosophical paradigm, and everyone should be able to express his or her view in an open way and feel that multiple ideas were heard and considered. And yet, when final decisions need to be made, it is important to have a final arbiter who is firm in his/her convictions and can stand by the decisions with integrity and with good humor.
A quote I once heard from a Head of School here in Los Angeles, which sticks with me always, was in reference to a parent telling him how wonderful he is at his job. He said that his response to this parent was, “I’m just one decision away from you hating me for the rest of your life.” This is the unfortunate truth of the job. One has to be willing to make those decisions, regardless of response, knowing that the decision was guided by a firm belief in the best interests of the institution as a whole.
The door of my office is almost always open (unless I am involved in a matter that deserves privacy). The teachers at my school feel free to come talk to me about anything. They know that I will listen carefully, without personal judgment, and my decision-making is fair, honest, and as transparent as possible.